Geotimes
Web Extra Friday, September 12, 2003

Evolution debate continues in Texas

At a public hearing on Wednesday, people on both sides of the ongoing evolution debate duked it out over how the topic should be covered in Texas high school biology textbooks. Several hundred people attended the 12-hour hearing, where emotions ran high and attacks grew personal at times. The Texas State Board of Education is considering 11 different textbooks for inclusion in the 2004-2005 school year. Publishers will have until Oct. 3 to submit any changes to the texts based on testimony at the meeting, and the board will vote at a meeting Nov. 6 and Nov. 7 on which, if any, of the texts to adopt (Geotimes, September 2003).

Trying to impress upon the board the importance of teaching evolution, many notable Texas scientists testified at the meeting, including Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate and physics professor at the University of Texas, Robert Dennison, president of the Texas Association of Biology Teachers, and Terry Maxwell, biology professor and curator of birds at Angelo State University. Evolution is one of the great unifying concepts in the natural sciences and not teaching it, or teaching what some call the weaknesses of it, would place extra hurdles in students' paths, they said.

"There is a definite consensus among the people who should be listened to that the textbooks should be left as written," says Casey Kaplan of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a nonprofit, nonpartisan alliance that includes more than 7,500 religious and community leaders. "That includes the distinguished university science professors — biology, geology and physics — and teachers and clergymen." While dozens of high school teachers testified in support of the textbooks as written, Kaplan remembers only one who suggested changes and introduction of weaknesses.

The weaknesses that should be introduced include critiques of several examples of evolutionary science covered by the science books including the Cambrian explosion, the peppered moths and Haeckel's drawings of vertebrate embryos, according to testimony by fellows of the Discovery Institute (DI) — a nonprofit public policy and research organization based out of Seattle and supporter of the theory of intelligent design. DI has taken an interest in the Texas debate because the state is the second largest purchaser of textbooks in the country. Thus any changes publishers make to cater to the state may be seen elsewhere. DI says that it does not support the teaching of creationism and does not suggest introducing intelligent design to the texts, but does support changes to the texts to include controversies about evolution. Most mainstream scientists call such arguments scientifically invalid and a "creationist distortion of science," as Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, said in a press release.

"Making the 'corrections' of the textbooks recommended by the antievolutionists would result in the production of substandard textbooks and substandard education for Texas students," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), in a press release. "If publishers are required to make these changes, the Texas editions of the textbooks will be inferior to textbooks sold elsewhere, which will put Texas students at a disadvantage. Is this what the Texas SBoE [State Board of Education] wants?"

In a letter to the Dallas Morning News on Sept. 2, board member Terri Leo wrote that the board members are not advocating removal of evolutionary theory or the inclusion of religion, creationism or intelligent design. "Our curriculum in Texas is not 'agenda driven,'" she wrote. Evolution is required learning by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the test each Texas student must pass in order to graduate. TEKS requires that students "analyze, review and critique hypotheses and theories as to the strengths and weaknesses," Leo says. The board is questioning whether the texts adequately note the weaknesses of evolution.

"All of the textbooks are scientifically acceptable as written," says Louis Jacobs, a paleontologist with Southern Methodist University. Although Jacobs was not present at the hearing, he has been following the ongoing debate closely and has actually gone a step further by examining all of the textbooks in question. He says the books even have sections where they address the arguments against evolution and debunk such arguments, which Jacobs believes is a good thing. He says if the board members have read the texts, he wonders why they still have concerns.

"It's so humiliating," Jacobs says. "It's really quite pathetic that we keep having these discussions in this day and age, and in this state, which boasts one of the most highly qualified groups of earth scientists anywhere."

One of the reasons teaching evolution keeps coming up for debate is that it is not only a political issue but also a religious one, says Jacobs. Samantha Smoot, executive director of TFN, testified that trying to teach criticism of evolution is merely a cover for religious creationism and intelligent design movements.

Rather than debunking or "correcting" long-used examples of evolution as DI is attempting to do, Jacobs and colleagues advocate teaching of both early and modern examples of evolutionary science to resolve the questions. "For the people who criticize evolution for what it is not, if we inform them and teach what the science is, we resolve the issues," Jacobs says.

One such way would be to introduce earth sciences into the Texas high school curriculum, as geologist Edward Roy of Trinity University in San Antonio has advocated. Roy testified in front of the board's Committee on Instruction on Thursday, in a separate session to discuss the findings of the earth science task force established to study Texas' graduation requirements for science and earth science (Geotimes, September 2002). He and other geoscientists believe learning earth science is critical to the intellectual development of students.

Although more than 150 people were signed up to testify at the board meeting, the board voted to limit testimony to Texas residents only, which cut the list to 138. Out-of-staters, including such bigwigs in the ongoing evolution in the classroom debate as Eugenie Scott and Alan Gishlick of NCSE on the pro-evolution side, and John West and Jonathan Wells, both with DI, on the other side, were allowed to submit written statements to the board. They also testified briefly in an informal 45-minute session at the end of the public hearing.

The hearing was the second of its kind, leading up to the board's textbook adoption decision in November. Many people are worried about the ramifications for Texas' students and students in other states if Texas does decide to introduce weaknesses of evolution or teach alternative theories; however, each individual school district has the right to choose which textbooks to adopt. The districts will only get reimbursed for books approved by the state board but would at least have other options. As Jacobs says, Texas might be a big market, but the rest of the country is bigger.

Megan Sever

Links:

Earth Science in Texas: A Progress Report, Geotimes, September 2002
Textbook battle over evolution, Geotimes, September 2003
Opposition to Evolution Takes Many Forms, Geotimes, September 2003

National Center for Science Education
Discovery Institute

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